Friday, 2 May 2014

What can diaries and journals do for writers?

Bluebells at Winkworth Arboretum
It’s taken a few days to come up with this post. During the Easter holidays, I went to Paris for a couple of nights, an amazing trip, but no blog posts sprang to mind. Back in Surrey, I walked amongst magnolia trees and daffodils and in woods with bluebell carpets (great inspiration for a 1780s scene in Book 2). I drafted a few posts, but couldn’t come up with anything half-decent, so instead I picked up a favourite book:

‘The Assassin’s Cloak, an anthology of the world’s greatest diarists’, one of those books to dip into like 'Daily Rituals' by Mason Currey, mentioned in a recent post: How do you write? Part II. And today in the car, a blog post finally presented itself.
This doorstop of a book includes diary (and some journal) excerpts from Samuel Pepys, James Boswell, Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward, Beatrix Potter, Lawrence Durrell, Queen Victoria...even Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole appears, although not Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones (I do think Bridget deserved a look-in). Basically a great number of writers are in there somewhere amongst many well-known people, from the 1600s to quite recently. It’s inspiring, there are words and phrases to savour and it’s laid out cleverly with a few excerpts for each day of the year.

Here are a few:
29 January 1660

‘Spent the afternoon in casting up my accounts, and do find myself to be worth £40 or more, which I did not think, but am afraid that I have forgot something.’ Samuel Pepys
4 June 1831

‘I wonder if I shall burn this sheet of paper like most others I have begun in the same way. To write a diary, I have thought of very often at far & near distances of time: but how could I write a diary without throwing upon paper my thoughts, all my thoughts - the thoughts of my heart as well as of my head?Elizabeth Barrett Browning
16 January 1854

‘I was struck today by the poetic beauty of the winter weather. In the sky a mist got up and the pale sun shone through it…’ Leo Tolstoy
29 April 1937

‘….A white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water. The hill runs clear up into the sky behind it, so the cypresses and olives over-hang this room in which I sit and write.’ Lawrence Durrell
2 October 1955

‘Communion. The clocks should have been changed. We remembered to get up late but lunched early by mistake.’ Evelyn Waugh.

What’s the difference between a diary and a journal?

Well, I gather a diary is where you record events, such as ‘I went to the dentist today and had a root canal treatment, so couldn’t eat for three hours’. A journal is more analytical, such as ‘I can’t fit into my favourite dress. Need to lose a few pounds for summer, so I’m going to run three times next week, go to a Pilates class and stay away from Mini Magnums and crisps…then I’m going to write a novel.’
I wrote a diary during my teenage years, but on reflection I suppose it was more of a journal. I’ve no idea where it is and I hope no-one ever finds it. Now and again, I go through a journal-writing phase: to help plan novels, short stories and flash fiction or to set myself writing targets. It’s useful, a kind of brainstorming meeting with myself.


I’ve used a diary/journal for research for each of my novels. I can’t tell you which ones-they aren’t well known, I found them by chance; one when surfing online, the other when browsing in a library. They’re at the root of the story for both novels, but if/when…I get published, I’ll tell you then.

For the purpose of submissions, I’ve decided to rename Book 1, hoping the new title will grab someone’s attention. Book 1 has the grandfather of the main character’s (“MC”) journal excerpts from World War II in Italy interspersed throughout and the MC goes to Italy when the journal turns up out of the blue. So I’m changing the title of Book 1 from The Grandson to The Journal. I’m sorry to let The Grandson go, and who knows if/when…I get published, it’ll probably change again, but for now Book 1 will be renamed The Journal.


  1. You always write such interesting posts, Anita! I love these excerpts from famous writers' diaries and wish I could write nearly as profoundly as they did.

    I look forward to being able to buy The Journal on Amazon sometime soon.x

    1. Thanks so much Georgina! The anthology is really inspiring-huge though and don't think I could read it from beginning to end in one go.x

  2. Old journals and diaries are so interesting, inspiring and informative, Anita. Wish I could remember to keep my own up to date!

    1. They are inspiring Rosemary. Me too! I expect these writers had a lot more time on their hands to write them than we do. In a 1700s journal I use for research, the writer sits down to write letters and her journal every evening because it's all there is to do

  3. This is so interesting, Anita - really enjoyed reading about your use of journals. I think The Journal as a title sounds tantalising; you immediately want to take a peak and see what's been written. x

  4. I'm going to take a moment to sigh over the fact that you were in Paris. I need to get there one day.

    Journals are so much fun to read, aren't they? Definitely great inspiration.

    1. The Paris trip was a dream Kelly! I could go there every weekend...:-)

  5. Love the extracts from the old diaries. I'm a big fan of keeping a journal - I did so throughout most of my teens and into my early 20s (though am in no hurry to re-visit those scribbles!!). Now I've started writing more of an observational journal, where I try to note down interesting things I've seen that day/week and things I've read which have sparked off creative ideas. I feel it helps if I'm going through a bit of a writers block phase. Great post! (P.S I also visited Paris recently - beautiful city!!)

    1. Thanks Vikki! Must go and read your post about Paris...